Cake
  • Log In
  • Sign Up
    • Part 1: My grandparents, Yani and Grampie, said the telegram from my mother was very short: “Please send Christopher.” I was in Pittsburgh, 7 years old. Mom was in Oakland. So Yani and Grampie bought me a suit, packed a small bag with my things, and sent me on a TWA jet to San Francisco. It was the last time I would ever see Grampie after 7 years together. I still adore him.

      The family history is silent about how mom got from her insane asylum, as it was called in the day, to Oakland. All we know is she drove an old Ford.
       
      Mom was a beauty who married a naval officer, got her Master’s degree from Cornell, and had her dream job in cancer research before schizophrenia set in around age 35. That was when she became pregnant with me. Mom left dad and moved in with her parents. 

      Mom’s illness became serious enough she had to be confined in the asylum in Sayre, PA. We visited her every Saturday and I thought she was the most wonderful person in the whole world.

    • Part 2: The TWA stewardesses were wonderful. They pinned wings on my shirt and let me sit with the pilots in the cockpit! They were constantly bringing new coloring books. They walked me to another plane in Chicago and introduced me to my new guardian angels there.

      When we got off the plane, lots of people were hugging and smiling but…mom wasn’t there. Two stewardesses kept their arms around me as I tried not to cry when everyone else left. They took me to an office where another woman assured me they would find mom. Over and over I heard “Miriam MacAskill, please come to a white courtesy telephone” while I sobbed.

      Eventually a tall, muscular man with a deep voice introduced himself to the staff as my father. I recognized him because we had met twice, most recently when I was 5. I was scared of him because he had picked me up by my arms and swung me around so one of my shoulders dislocated. 

      It was humiliating to have him see me bawling. He and my sister Jane drove me to mom’s apartment in a tough Oakland neighborhood. Jane was 6 years older than me. After dropping me off, they returned to their apartment in SF. And just like that I felt safe and loved again. 

      From a frame of a home movie Grampie made of us before mom drove to CA:

    • Chris MacAskill

      Part 3: Unfortunately, vulnerable people believe the scary things politicians say and Senator McCarthy had terrified mom. She believed the communists had bugged our phones and they would steal me if they could. She let me go to 2nd grade but was too afraid to let me go to 3rd & 4th. 

      Schizophrenia, televangelists, alcohol and cigarettes had their way with her until she could no longer pay our rent. I knew mom believed crazy things, but she told me that if the truant officer caught me playing hooky from school, I’d go to San Quentin for life. That sounded like it could be true.

      You wouldn’t think a child could be homeless in Oakland, but it happened to me. I remember sleeping in the woods, in creek beds, and parks — making sure the truant officer couldn’t find us during school hours. 

      Sometimes mom would create a disturbance and the police would haul her away. They would recognize that she was mentally ill and would take her to the psych ward of a hospital. By California law she could only be held for 72 hours if she wasn’t deemed a threat to society. I didn’t let the police see me and stayed with other homeless people. They were as wonderful as the TWA stewardesses but, like mom, they were haunted by scary beliefs. 

      One winter mom found out that dad had a sailboat in Alameda. He didn’t lock it so we slept in the main cabin for perhaps 2 months. The boat had a galley with cans of chile con carne! 

      One day dad showed up with two clients he wanted to impress. When he opened the hatch and discovered us, he grew furious and told us to get out. We were filthy. We tried to gather our things, but he yanked mom from the cabin and I ran away from him and onto the dock. When you’re homeless, people just look away but this was different. This was my father too embarrassed to admit I was his son. I’ll never forget walking down the dock wondering how we would survive.

      There are 10 more stories like that I will never tell, not even to my children. 

      To this day when I see cigarette butts on the sidewalk, I think of collecting them for mom. We didn’t have money so I gathered butts that still had tobacco and she smoked them.

      Sometime around 5th grade age, I finally got caught shoplifting and had to go to Juvenile Hall. It was a sweater from a department store.  The detective who ran me down slammed my shoulders against a wall, his chest heaving, and called me a little shit.
       
      A tall, silver-haired, and kind man brought books to my cell and asked my name. I froze and stared at my feet. I couldn’t tell him because then he’d know I didn’t go to school and I’d be in real trouble. He was so kind, I would give anything to go back in time to thank him.

      Juvenile Hall was nice. They served three meals a day we ate together in an open area. For lunch we got TWO HAMBURGERS WITH KETCHUP AND MUSTARD!! And warm French fries. I worried, though, that mom believed the communists had taken me.

      The kind man explained that we had to go to court and the judge would demand that I tell him my name and where I was from. 

    • Chris MacAskill

      Part 4: I think we were in court twice. The kind man sat beside me and assured me it was okay while I shook. The other boys were teens and criminals. How could I be on the same bench as them for a sweater? Had they found out I played hooky?

      Perhaps I’ve watched too many movies with judges and it imprinted my memory, but I remember the judge as a huge bald man with a deep voice who pounded a hammer on his desk. They made us stand in the middle of the courtroom while the judge demanded my name. I stood shaking, looking at my feet, saying nothing with the kind man’s arm around me. Then my bladder let go and I couldn’t stop screaming.

      Strangely, I can’t remember a thing after that. My memory begins again when I moved in with my father, a new stepmother, and Jane in Orinda — an upper middle class neighborhood over the hills from Oakland. My mother was placed in a care facility in Martinez, where I could visit her on Saturdays by riding a Greyhound bus. 

      The principal of Glorietta Elementary walked me into a 6th grade class during the third week of the school year. The kids in fancy clothes who filled the room were doing times tables. What? One morning, Mrs. Givens called on me to diagram a sentence and handed me the chalk. I had no idea what to do. The class laughed and I ran out to the creek and into a drainage culvert. I hid there all day. 

      I was terrified of dad and afraid the school had told him. And I couldn’t imagine going back to that classroom. I was pretty sure I knew how to run away through the drainage culverts where they could never catch me. But my new stepmom hugged me when I came home. She asked what happened. I didn’t speak. I couldn’t stop uncontrolled sobbing, which was humiliating in front of Jane and dad.

      This is dad and my new stepmom, Julie. I would have run away without her.

    • Chris MacAskill

      Part 5: The next morning two angels in the form of teachers sat with me through a set of tests. They would fold paper, cut a pattern with scissors and ask me to predict what it would look like when they unfolded it. I had no idea. Jane told me it was an IQ test and that they had told dad I had a low IQ.

      I think I spent most of 6th, 7th and 8th grade in slow learner classes. Somehow in 6th grade I met an Asian girl named Donna Wade and fell head over heels for her. We spent hours on the phone together doing homework. I would do anything to impress her and that meant lots of homework. Wherever you are Donna, it’s been a long time and you’ll probably never know what you meant to me.

      You can imagine what other kids called slow learners like me. I somehow passed American History in 8th grade with a C- and the well-intended teacher said, “I don’t believe it! Chris MacAskill passed!”

      In 9th grade, our science teacher Mr. Davis had a terribly scarred face from an experiment gone wrong. The kids made fun of him but he and I stayed after school to build an electric motorcycle (really) and talk science. From then on, I aced science and math and loved them both.

      Here’s the thing: mom had somehow memorized a lot of Shakespeare and would recite it at the top of her lungs when we wandered the streets of Oakland. You think your mom embarrassed you? I would walk a block behind her, still within earshot so I didn’t get lost, but pretending I wasn’t with her.

    • Chris MacAskill

      Part 6: Even in high school, I couldn’t listen to Shakespeare. They would study him in every English class and I would find a way to be absent or plug my ears. I got Ds in English.

      With all the As, UC Santa Barbara decided to accept me even though their policy is no Ds. All I had to do was pass English 1A — bonehead English — a non credit course. They pulled out Shakespeare and I just…couldn’t. I got an F. They let me take it again. F again. They let me take it from UC Berkeley via correspondence, pass/no-pass. They assured me everyone passes. I got a NP and was expelled on academic probation. I had As in calculus, chemistry, and physics. How could this be? 

      I was so upset I swore to never set foot on another college campus as long as I lived. I drove to Utah to be a summer camp counselor, still hurt and angry, and walked into a dining room where the other counselors were having dinner. I was too shy to meet girls in Santa Barbara, but I could hear one at the table whom I couldn’t see, and I could feel myself falling in love with her voice. 

      I asked about her in the morning and they said she had graduated from college Phi Kappa Phi. Oh no. You can’t be a dropout and have your girlfriend be a college grad, no way. She wanted to go riding horses and I melted. What was wrong with me? I could hardly breathe. Chris, I told myself, you can never let on that you have a crush on her. It would ruin everything.

    • Chris MacAskill

      Part 7: We had an incredible summer,  always together but accompanied by 10 teens, me hopelessly in love. I was sure that when Toni found out about my troubles with college, she’d want to move on and I would never get over her. But somehow she invited me to meet her parents and agreed to meet mine. Only she could have talked me into giving college a second try. I enrolled at the University of Utah and we got married. 

      A visiting professor of higher education gave a speech and boomed “The IQ test is the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the American public! It measures interest and exposure and that’s all!” Could he be right? Does that mean I could pass English? With Toni’s help and Paul Dunn’s speech, I took technical writing and passed.

      What I didn’t tell her was mom dreamed of me going to a great grad school. I secretly began to dream of Oxford, not knowing it was in England. We had a baby, however, and we were broke. I had to work at UPS from 3-8 am and study during the day. We agreed on a budget of $25 to apply to one grad school.

      That eliminated Oxford but Stanford was $25. I knew it was a one-in-a-thousand shot but what if it happened? Someone like me at Stanford? When a slim letter came in a regular envelope, it took me two days to open it because I wanted to be accepted so badly I didn’t think I could take the rejection. At last I held the envelope up to the light and could make out three words: we are pleased.

      The faculty at University of Utah gasped when I told them. “Are you sure it said your advisor is Allan Cox? He’s the Dean of Earth Sciences, the President of the American Geophysical Union, a fellow in the Academy of Sciences, one of the most accomplished scientists alive.” I showed them the letter and they shook their heads.

    • Chris MacAskill

      Last part: I promised myself I would cherish every moment at Stanford more than any student had in the previous century. I promised to kiss the ground each time I stepped on campus, and figuratively I always have.

      I put my letter in my top pocket to show him I wasn’t there by mistake, and 2-year-old son Don on my shoulders to ease my nerves. Allan was a man of few words and got right to it: “Uh (he had a stutter) Chris, can uh you explain your writing achievement test scores? Everything was high but that.”

      The blood drained from my body. I explained that I do equations, not sentences, and that I chose geophysics to get as far from English as possible.

      He put down the file and said he had bad news. I felt myself dying. How would I tell Toni they changed their minds?

      “In order to become a great scientist, which is what you’re here to become, you must become a great writer. What good is great science if no one knows about it? You have to write a masters thesis and I will grade it, and if it’s not good writing, I won’t pass you.”

      I thought about telling him of the communists, the years on the street, Shakespeare…but he didn’t seem like the kind of man who would understand. So Don and I wandered aimlessly around campus, me thinking I could never graduate but at least I could take classes.

      In the end I decided to study Lincoln, Twain and Churchill on my own time. And The Elements of Style. No Shakespeare. 2 hours a day. The strangest thing happened. After 6 months I began to love it. 

      The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. — Mark Twain

      I’m sorry to have written a 5 page letter. I didn’t have time to write a 1-page letter. — Pascal

      I would give all that I own and go into debt to write so fine a piece as I think that is. — Lincoln

      Allan gave me an A on my thesis.

      When I’m tempted to despair about human nature, I think back on the extraordinary people who cared for us without understanding our situation, and where we would be without them. I marvel at how wonderful some people can be. 

      I eventually bonded with dad as an adult, but it took help from Toni. This is mom in her care facility in Martinez, me on her left. 

    • Chris, I'm in awe of your success both as a person and in creating new places to be (software, companies, networks to connect with people). I suspect you are who you are in part because of your difficult early life. Thank you for sharing your story!

    • Markos Giannopoulos

      Clicking the reaction icons on each post seemed it would not be enough to convey the proper feeling. Thank you for this thread, for sharing your story, @Chris

    • Chris, you are a phenomenal storyteller and you have an incredible story. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Yani and Grampie bought me a suit, packed a small bag with my things, and sent me on a TWA jet to San Francisco. It was the last time I would ever see Grampie after 7 years together. I still adore him.

      And he still adores you. I cannot imagine the gut-wrench this must have been for your grandparents. I am my six-year-old grandson’s “parent” right now, and while it is an extremely challenging situation, I love him to the moon and back. There will come a day when his parents will send me the equivalent of your Mom’s telegram, and it will be rough to see him go.

      Thank you for sharing this story, @Chris. I love your wife for being such an amazing young woman who could see that you were a diamond in the rough. Give her a hug from me. 🤗

    • It's not often we get to appreciate a so candidly shared story of a life! It moved me as I read all your episodes, as if I was living it. I can see that you are now a man who understands, and enjoys the gifts of life!

    • I cannot imagine the gut-wrench this must have been for your grandparents.

      I can't either. I have a whole trunk full of home movies Grampie made with his 16mm movie camera of mom growing up. He's in this picture with mom and her best friend — my dad's sister. He was so devoted to mom. Then to see her end up on the streets with her illness... I heard he was never the same after that.

      Here's a short sample of his films. He used to make a new family film every month and show it on the projector.

    • Thank you for sharing your story Chris. It looks like you are one to find strength from adversity. I have had several friends who have suffered from mental illness, I could not imagine if it were my mother. Wow!

      To this day mental illness is not given the proper amount of attention it deserves. Not by a long shot!

    • Seems like you've got the writing thing pretty well figured out, Chris.

      I was in 4th grade in the 1950's when my mom developed paranoid schizophrenia. Years of turmoil and anxiety followed, but my devoted father never gave up. Following electro shock therapy she was able to return to a somewhat normal life. Discussion of mental illness was taboo back then, and it has taken a lifetime for me to begin to understand. Thank you for sharing your story and for this amazing forum you've created!

    • Wow, that's impressive of your dad to not give up. For most schizophrenics, they become alienated from their families.

      Sometimes schizophrenics are truly brilliant. Mom retained a public library card when we were on the streets and we went to the library almost every day. The librarians were wonderful and chatted mom up about what she was reading and how she liked yesterday's books.

      The astonishing thing is she would get 7 books at a time (the limit), one for me. I'd typically pick something like the biography of Wild Bill Hickok and it would take me 3 days to read it. She would read her 6 books in a day or two. I would say "Mom, how is that possible? No one can do that." And I'd open a book and ask her about some stuff I could see in it. She could answer correctly. I never figured that out.

      At Stanford, they had a speed-reading class based on Evelyn Wood and I took it because I wanted to be like mom. I failed at it and Stanford discontinued the course, saying it reduced comprehension.

      Mom claimed to have memorized the complete works of Shakespeare. I was never able to verify that because I hate Shakespeare. However, when I tried to read Hamlet, I recognized what I read from the things she'd recite as we walked.

      If you want a fantastic read on how brilliant they can be, Simon Winchester's book The Professor and the Madman is riveting.

    • I have the audio version of the Winchester book and it is indeed fascinating.

      Mom and dad met in nursing school. Becoming a nurse was the fulfillment of her life-long dream. Dad eventually went on to Dental school in Atlanta, and after graduating was invited to join the faculty where he taught for a couple of years. After several years in private practice and a short stint in the army, he went back to grad school and we moved to southern California where he became one of the founders of his church's dental school. Teaching was his Calling, and he loved mentoring students. It was there that mom's "breakdown" occurred. She became irrational, convinced that my older sister was a "dope fiend" and was hiding drugs in the house among other things. Dad would often be out till two or three am searching for her in the nearby orange groves where she'd be hiding from her demons. Eventually she was 'committed' to the university hospital, where the psychiatrists recommended electro shock therapy. Mom vehemently disagreed, but dad reluctantly gave consent. That treatment was successful in that she was able to return home and function in a more normal manner, but she disliked California and longed to return to North Carolina where she felt less threatened. Dad ultimately gave in and we moved back east where he returned to private practice.

      Mom never forgave dad for consenting to her shock therapy. After his passing she said that if he truly loved her he'd have taken them himself before subjecting her to that treatment. But from my perspective that therapy saved her life. Only after her passing (at 97) did I learn from her younger sister the rest of the story. I had only known that my maternal grandmother had died in early middle age while mom was away in nursing school. I'd heard mom say "the Doctors killed my mother" but she never elaborated and I assumed it was her paranoia talking. But my aunt told of returning home from high school one afternoon to find that her mother had painted the walls of her bedroom with the contents of the slop jar (they lived on a farm and had no indoor plumbing). When my aunt objected, her mother siezed a butcher knife and chased her out of the house. My grandfather, a poor farmer in the middle of the great depression, had no option but to have her committed to the state mental hospital where she was treated with insulin shock therapy (as graphically portrayed in the movie "A Beautiful Mind"). After many weeks she was discharged, but the psychosis eventually returned and she was recommitted. The chief psychiatrist happened to be on vacation, and a less experienced physician apparently got the insulin dose wrong and she died during treatment. Perhaps that's why mom, who always extolled the joys of Nursing, had a lifelong distrust of doctors.

    • Oh, no... That sounds so much like my mom. I think I heard from my sister that she had shock therapy when she was in Sayre, and apparently it helped for awhile. Maybe that's how she got out. She would not see a doctor, even when she broke her ankle.

      I went to see A Beautiful Mind with Toni and I've only been so emotional in a movie once — Million Dollar Baby. For both movies I had a 3-day hangover. Btw, Sean Penn plays the Madman in the upcoming movie version and he's unrecognizable.

    • A Beautiful Mind made me sick for days. There are drugs available now that would have made mom's life, and the lives of her family members, much less stressful. But distrust of doctors and fundamentalist religious beliefs led her to refuse all drugs. In her last two years she came to trust her caregiver and accepted the "vitamins" that wonderful lady provided. And anxiety and paranoia faded. We enjoyed the most relaxed and rational conversations of our lives.

    • Paul Johnston

      Mom left dad and moved in with her parents. 

      I am curious as to why your mother left your dad and if this was ever revealed to you? Was it primarily due to the on set of her mental illness and that placed just too much stress on your family? You mentioned that later on in life you bonded with your father with the help of his wife. I am wondering why you may have been fearful of your father? (excluding the example you gave of his dislocating your shoulder by swing you around). Was it mainly the fact that you spent most of your time with your mother and infrequently saw your father?

      Somewhere in the past, maybe an interview or an article, I was aware of your being sometimes homeless as a child. However, your story above is more complete and takes great courage to tell. As you relate, your hardships and trials were many. However, most importantly as you point out, there were crucial supportive people at the right times and places in your life that allowed you to overcome a very difficult childhood! The follow through on this is it may be possible that each one of us could play a supportive role in someone's life that ultimately make all the difference in the world as to the outcome of their life.

    You've been invited!